The government is in danger of ignoring social issues in Brexit talks

July 5, 2017 at 09:30

It’s only been a year and it is clear that the public are starting to get Brexit fatigue. The most recent General Election was dubbed the ‘Brexit election’ but yet there was surprisingly little debate about Brexit, with issues funding public services and terrorism policy dominating the debate.

Yet we still have two years before a deal is likely to be agreed and the government is already talking with the EU about our future relationship. So however heavy our eyelids might get, it is important that charities stay awake to Brexit and the consequences of the negotiation.

CFG has been thinking a lot about how Brexit could impact on the charity sector (see my previous blog posts here and here) and we are going to keep working on this over the coming year (in a survey of members 96% responded that they wanted CFG to work on this issue!).

But an important issue is not just what charities want but what does the public think. Politicians, particularly in this current environment, are going to be very sensitive to public mood about Brexit and perceived success of the negotiation. So we commissioned ComRes during the election to ask the public about what topics they thought were getting too much (or too little) focus and what groups the government was prioritising. You can find the full tables on the ComRes website.

Interestingly, the public think that not enough focus was being given to improving the NHS (58%). Protecting small UK businesses (46%) and protecting the interests of the British public (46%) also featured highly on the list of topics which the public thought were not getting enough focus.

Worryingly for the sector, 39% thought that about the right amount of focus had been given to supporting charities to help good causes in Brexit talks. Given that there has been little or no debate about this, this doesn’t stake up with reality. It might indicate that the public think that we are a low priority and so doesn’t expect to hear much about us. Or it could be that they don’t know what they should be listening out for.

A silver lining (and following on a theme that I have covered in the Guardian Voluntary Sector) in the poll was that young people (18-24 year olds) were more likely to say that not enough focus was being given to supporting charities to help good causes (43%), compared with those 65+ (19%). This is something that we need to communicate with politicians and reinforces the need for politicians to be aware that young people have different focuses on Brexit than older generations.

We also asked people to give us their views on which groups the government was prioritising in the Brexit negotiations. Respondents gave their ‘top three priorities’ and the breakdown was as follows:

  • 54% of respondents said British businesses were a top-three priority;
  • 43% said wealthy people and communities;
  • 36% said the British public;
  • 35% said foreign-owned businesses;
  • 16% said “people like me”;
  • 9% said disadvantaged people and communities;
  • 5% said charities and voluntary organisations.

This gives a clear indication that the public sees the government as very focused on delivering a Brexit that works for business rather than looking at how Brexit can deliver a more socially-just society.

Looking at this from a charity sector perspective, it is clear that most of the debate has been focused on issues such as the ‘Right to Remain’ for EU nationals, the divorce bill and free trade agreements. These are all important issues, particularly the first of these, but there hasn’t been very much discussion about what kind of society we want to see post-Brexit.

Without a clear social vision, how do we know what kind of deal we need with the EU?

This is where charities need to come in and be a voice for all parts of society. But we also need to say what we need from government in order to deliver social change. Change isn’t going to happen without actors to deliver it, and charities are one of the main vehicles that we have in the UK.

Irrecoverable VAT, State Aid and public service regulations might sound boring, but if the government gets a deal which leaves these problems ‘frozen’ and insoluble, then this is going to make helping disadvantaged groups much harder to achieve. Alongside the debate about what happens to EU funds, these issues could cost the sector billions of pounds over coming years.

The messages from this polling are clear. We need to be more vocal about our needs and our views on the Brexit negotiations. We need to push the government to deliver a social vision for post-Brexit Britain and advocate for a Brexit that prioritises the wider community, including the disadvantaged, not just elites. If we can do this, then we will be in the best possible position to exploit any opportunities that Brexit may bring the UK and the charity sector.